Editorial: Bakk adds another wrinkle to suddenly competitive Senate and House campaigns
For the most part, elections for state legislature in our neck of the woods are usually drab, cut-and-dried affairs.
Barring the contest for the occasional open seat, our House and Senate races were generally decided before a vote was ever cast.
For decades, names such as Battaglia and Johnson, and more recently Bakk, Dill and Ecklund have cruised to victory and by most accounts have represented the region well in St. Paul.
Republican opposition to these entrenched Democrats has generally been token and ultimately futile.
But the political winds? They are a changing on the Iron Range.
Look no further than Bakk, a tried-and-true Democrat who during his nearly three decades in St. Paul grew more detached from his party.
It came as no real surprise at the time that Bakk, not long after the 2020 election announced that he would leave the DFL party, become an Independent and caucus with Republicans
No real surprise at the time - but had one said that a decade or two earlier it would have been Twilight Zone material.
Bakk, who is retiring from the legislature, again made news this week with a split-ticket endorsement in two area legislative contests.
For the Senate seat he is giving up, Bakk is backing Republican Andrea Zupancich, whom he personally recruited to run.
But while Bakk caucused with Senate Republicans, he is forging his own path when it comes to the endorsement in the State House election - backing his longtime colleague and incumbent Democrat Rob Ecklund of International Falls.
The moves add yet another wrinkle to an interesting and changing dynamic of northeastern Minnesota politics.
There’s no doubt that the Senate race is more open now than it has been at anytime since Bakk bucked his own party’s endorsement and moved over from the State House, winning the election to succeed the retiring Johnson.
Longtime area political observers will recall that the drama that year was in the DFL primary, as Bakk beat the endorsed party candidate - Bruce Lotti. After the primary victory, Bakk was a shoo-in and has been ever since.
But this year there’s an honest-to-goodness race, with Zupancich and Democrat Grant Hauschild carrying on in what has become an increasingly intense and sometimes nasty campaign. Look no further than the candidates’ forum held just over a week ago.
Partisan politics and geography both figure to play a role in the final outcome, and it will be interesting to see if Bakk’s support will tip the scales in favor of Zupancich.
On the House side of things, Ecklund is involved in what seems certain to be a close, contested race. That’s typical in many areas but still relatively new in the once true blue Iron Range.
Ecklund squeaked past a Republican challenger two years ago while a couple of other Range lawmakers - Dave Lislegard and Julie Sandstede - barely survived against unexpectedly strong Republican foes.
Expect more of the same this time around as prospects for Ely’s Roger Skraba are buoyed by new district lines that add more Republican territory.
Ecklund seems to get it, stepping up his campaign and pointing out during the debate that “I’m one of the last moderates” and blasting “the nuts on the right and the nuts on the left” in state and national politics.
Bakk cited seniority in his endorsement of Ecklund and there’s no doubt the Range is losing clout. Take Bakk and the late Sen. David Tomassoni out of the Senate, and should Range DFL lawmakers such as Ecklund, Lislegard and Sandstede get beat, who would be the most powerful Iron Ranger in St. Paul?
We’d argue that moniker would go to a couple of unelected Rangers - area lobbyists Gary Cerkvenik and Jeff Anderson.
Voting has already begun and unlike in the past, it’s anybody’s ballgame.
The forum showed that all four contenders are vying for the votes of those who will decide the election. The party faithful on each side are locked in. Hauschild and Zupancich are in a race for the middle and so too, it seems are Ecklund and Skraba.
Who comes out on top? Stay tuned.